More than 270 female secondary students were kidnapped on April 14 as they sat matriculation exams in the north-east Nigerian town of Chibok.
The kidnappers were members of a religious cult that calls itself Jama‘at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-da‘wa wal-Jihad — Arabic for Congregation of the People of Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad.
The group is more commonly known by its Hausa nickname, Boko Haram, which translate — very loosely — as “Western education is filthy”, although this is not a name that the group itself uses.
For the next fortnight the kidnapping was largely ignored by the global media and the Nigerian state.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan was more focused on the World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting in the capital Abuja staring May 7. Jonathan was planning to spin Nigeria to visiting global political and corporate leaders as a neoliberal success story, boosted by the April 7 announcement that Nigeria had overtaken South Africa as the continent’s largest economy.
This statistic is less impressive when it is considered that, with 175 million people, Nigeria is Africa’s largest country by population and per capita GDP is well under half of South Africa’s. Wealth inequality in Nigeria is extreme.
Protests against inaction
Family members of the kidnapped girls and other Chibok residents armed themselves with homemade weapons to search for the kidnapped students. They found 50 who had managed to jump off the trucks they were being transported on.
Authorities, however, did little but make outlandish and contradictory claims: that they had either all been rescued or that there was no kidnapping in the first place.
The kidnappings were the largest of escalating Boko Haram attacks on schools. A simultaneous Boko Haram bomb attack in Abuja claiming 75 lives suggested the cult had extended its reach beyond its base in the country’s north-east.
Protests against the government’s inaction spread and activists began using the Twitter hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. The Twitter campaign took off in Nigeria. Then it reached the West.
By the beginning of May, Western media disinterest turned into saturation coverage as tweeting the hastag became something of a trend for global celebrities.
Among the celebrities giving their support to the campaign have been Angelina Jolie, Jada Pinkett Smith, Justin Timberlake, Sean Penn, Ashton Kutcher, Alicia Keys, Cara Delevingne and, ironically, Chris Brown before he was jailed on May 9 on domestic violence-related charges.
The social media campaign was fuelled when a 57 minute video was sent to Agence-France Presse on May 5. In it, a grinning Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau announced he would sell the kidnapped students “on the open market” and force girls as young as nine to marry.
On May 8, an open letter was signed by almost 50 “global business, civil society and religious leaders”. Some of the signatories have genuine humanitarian credentials, notably South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu. More the most part, however, the names read like a Forbes Rich List.
Australian mining tycoon Andrew Forrest and media baron Rupert Murdoch signed along with US media baron Ted Turner, software billionaires Bill and Melinda Gates and British owner of the Virgin Group, Richard Branson. Predictably, pontificating rock star and tax avoider Bono was also on the list.
The open letter stopped short of directly calling for Western military intervention. But it demanded “full support of the international community, to dedicate their expertise and resources — from satellite imagery to intelligence services to multinational corporations’ supply chains — to #BringBackOurGirls”.
Nigeria has contributed troops to African Union “peacekeeping” forces in several countries on the continent. But it has been reluctant to accept foreign assistance to deal with its several insurgencies and civil disorders.
However, by the time the WEF meeting started, the government had accepted military assistance from the US, Britain, France, Canada and China. US military, police and intelligence forces were already in the country.
Parallels with the “Kony 2012” social media campaign to support US troops being sent to Uganda are striking. In a May 9 Guardian piece entitled “Dear world, your hashtags won’t #bringbackourgirls”, Nigerian-American journalist Jumoke Balogun said: “The United States military loves your hashtags because it gives them legitimacy to encroach and grow their military presence in Africa.
“Africom (United States Africa Command), the military body that is responsible for overseeing US military operations across Africa, gained much from #KONY2012 and will now gain even more from #BringBackOurGirls…
“In 2013 alone, Africom carried out a total of 546 ‘military activities’ which is an average of one and half military missions a day. While we don’t know much about the purpose of these activities, keep in mind that Africom’s mission is to ‘advance US national security interests’.
“And advancing they are. According to one report, in 2013, American troops entered and advanced American interests in Niger, Uganda, Ghana, Malawi, Burundi, Mauritania, South Africa, Chad, Togo, Cameroon, São Tomé and Príncipe, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Lesotho, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and South Sudan.”
She said this was on top of “US-led drone operations in Northern Nigeria and Somalia. There are also counter-terrorism outposts in Djibouti and Niger and covert bases in Ethiopia and the Seychelles which are serving as launching pads for the U.S. military to carry out surveillance and armed drone strikes.”
Balogun pointed to some of the results of US training African military forces: “The man who overthrew the elected Malian government in 2012 was trained and mentored by the United States between 2004 and 2010.
“Further, a US-trained battalion in the Democratic Republic of Congo was denounced by the United Nations for committing mass rapes.
“Now the United States is gaining ground by sending military advisors and more drones, sorry, I mean security personnel and assets, to Nigeria to assist the Nigerian military, who by the way, have a history of committing mass atrocities against the Nigerian people.”
Ridiculing the “humanitarian” pretexts for military action, Balogun said: “Remember #KONY2012? When Obama sent 100 combat-equipped troops to capture or kill Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony in Central Africa?
“Well, they haven’t found him and although they momentarily stopped looking, Obama sent more troops in March 2014 who now roam Uganda, Central African Republic, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.”
Just like the Kony 2012 campaign failed to contextualise the violence of the Lord’s Resistance Army, outside of Nigeria the #BringBackOurGirls campaign and the accompanying media campaign have ignored the context in which Boko Haram emerged.
Instead, they prefer to rely on the standard Islamaphobic cliches of the “War on Terror”.
In December, when Canada joined the US and Britain in listing Boko Haram as a terrorist group, Canadian Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney said: “Boko Haram is a Salafist jihadist group … whose ultimate objective is to overthrow the Nigerian government and implement sharia law.
“The group desires a political system in Nigeria modelled after how the Taliban ruled in Afghanistan.”
In fact, Boko Haram is not Salafist. Its take on Islam follows highly unorthodox local millenarian traditions that would be seen as heretical by actual Salafists.
The group’s origins lie in the complicated relationship between movements for regional self-determination, corrupt local politics, inter-ethnic conflict and gangsterism that have characterised Nigerian politics since independence in 1960.
Britain created Nigeria in the 19th century by merging quite different existing social and political entities. From the 1500s, the coast west of the Niger Delta was known to Europeans as the Slave Coast due to its importance to the Atlantic slave trade. In the early 19th century, while slavery still existed in the British Caribbean, Britain began the conquest of Africa on the pretext of suppressing the slave trade.
By the 1860s, the largest city and port, Lagos, was a British colony. By the end of the 19th century, Britain controlled all the coastal regions as protectorates.
Britain exercised control through local monarchs. Where none existed, Britain appointed them. In 1906, the south was unified into the Colony and Protectorate of Southern Nigeria.
Britain did not start colonising the north until the “scramble for Africa” that followed the division of the entire continent into European spheres of influence at the Berlin Conference of 1884-85.
It was not until the early 20th century that Britain defeated the Muslim states in pre-colonial northern Nigeria. Britain then retained control via British protectorates.
In 1914, Britain merged southern and northern Nigeria, although separate administrations were maintained. In the south, Christian missionaries and the colonial government opened schools to train skilled workers and local bureaucrats.
In the north, however, as part of the policy of indirect rule via the pre-colonial ruling class, missionaries were banned and the Islamic clergy were funded to provide education through religious schools.
This is a key source of the northern religious establishment’s antipathy to Western education — reflected in Boko Haram’s nickname.
When Britain built roads and railways from northern Nigeria to the coast, labour from the south was used. However, separate housing compounds were built for southern workers, who were prohibited from interacting with Muslim northerners.
Britain united the country to better exploit its resources, but divided the population. Not only were north and south kept separate, but each was divided itself between several protectorates.
Fight for resources
Since independence, Nigeria has been torn apart by the centrifugal forces this created. Between 1966 and 1998, Nigerian politics was defined by constant military coups. Various regionally based military cliques competed for the chance to plunder the country — for personal gain and for the benefit of Western corporations.
Between 1967 and 1970, this became full-scale civil war. The east of the country, backed by the US, France and apartheid South Africa, tried to break away as the Republic of Biafra. But the bid was defeated by forces from Nigeria’s west and north, who were backed by Britain and the Soviet Union, at the cost of 3 million lives.
In 1973, oil was discovered in the Niger Delta and quickly became central to the economy. This exacerbated regional and ethnic tensions.
On the one hand, the delta suffered environmental devastation without getting proportionate economic benefits, which were monopolised by the kleptocratic British-created elite.
On the other hand, the less developed north received no benefit at all from the oil wealth. It fell further behind in social indicators such as literacy and life expectancy. This led to frequent armed insurgencies.
In the Niger Delta, Shell Oil pushed the government to crush the non-violent Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP). The government hanged Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other MOSOP leaders in 1995 after a crudely rigged trial.
In the aftermath, several armed resistance movements emerged. Some focused on defending their communities, but others allied with local politicians and focussed on “bunkering” — the theft and illicit export of oil.
Throughout the country, similar processes occurred. Local politicians coopted armed insurgencies for their own ends. As neoliberalism advanced after the first International Monetary Fund-imposed structural adjustment program was introduced in the 1990s, organised crime increased.
Armed gangs were drawn from a variety of sources: local insurgencies, religious cults (Muslim, Christian, traditional, and even New Age), private security forces created by Shell and Chevron to protect their investments, and violent student fraternities promoted in the 1980s by military governments to suppress the democratic student movement.
Ethnic and religious communalism was further fuelled by the centralisation of the economy, which promoted rural-to-urban migration. But the British system of classifying people as “indigenous” to a particular state (as the 36 protectorates were renamed after independence) was maintained.
Political and economic rights were denied to “settlers” even if their family had actually lived in the state for generations.
All these were factors in the creation of Boko Haram. In particular, it emerged from northern politicians promoting a movement for Sharia law and from conflict in the city of Jos, in Plateau State, between “indigenous” Christians and Muslim “settlers”.
The group was founded in 2002. Despite clashes between it and authorities, it retained links with local politicians.
However, after the extrajudicial execution of Boko Haram’s charismatic founder Mohamed Yusuf in 2009, the conflict escalated. The May 6 Guardian said that since 2011, the Nigerian authorities had tried to intimidate the group with mass jailings of suspected members’ wives and children, including Shekau’s family.
In a 2012 video, Shekau threatened revenge: “Since you are now holding our women, just wait and see what will happen to your own women … to your own wives according to sharia law.”
The slowness of the government’s initial response to the Chibok abductions; revelations by Amnesty International on May 9 that the army command had received a four-hour warning that Boko Haram forces were heading to Chibok but did not send reinforcements; and the insistence of the local government that the matriculation exam go ahead despite schools being closed due to previous Boko Haram attacks, has created speculation that ties between the group and some politicians may remain.
Either way, authorities have been unable to stop the group kidnapping more schoolgirls. On May 8, Boko Haram massacred 315 people in the border town of Gamboru.
However, the social media campaign for Western intervention against Boko Haram ignores past violence and current Western military interventions in Africa. It ignores the fact that Boko Haram, appalling though its actions are, does not have a monopoly on ultra-violence in Nigeria.
As President Jonathan’s January 13 law making being gay a criminal offence shows, neither does it have a monopoly on backward ideologies.
As Balogun said: “Calls for the US to get involved in this crisis … co-opts the growing movement against the inept and kleptocratic Jonathan administration.
“It was Nigerians who took their good-for-nothing president to task and challenged him to address the plight of the missing girls … emphasis on US action does more harm to the people you are supposedly trying to help and it only expands and sustain US military might.